Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Our basic needs as humans are food, warmth, and shelter. I thought of this as I burrowed deep into the covers of my childhood bed at home last week, feeling happy, full, and content - comforted that my brother (who was nursing the flu and whom I convinced to stay overnight) was asleep on the couch right outside my bedroom. Even though it was January 4th, it felt like Christmas to me: everyone tucked into their beds, soundly asleep in a warm, comforting home.

My homecoming is always the same: I rush through US customs, practically running ahead of the slow, hobbling, overweight population of the plane disembarking at SeaTac airport. I check all the appropriate boxes on the customs form and answer, "just cookies," when asked if I'm bringing any food into the country and wince when the customs official (always a he) says, "Welcome home." This was my home, once upon a time, and I still refer to it as "home", but it is not. I have lived abroad long enough that I now experience culture shock when returning to the States. It certainly does not feel like home. It feels strange, foreign to me, even, as I stare in wide-eyed wonder at the size of grocery stores and SUVs on the road and genetically enhanced fruit.

From customs, I race down to baggage claim while trying not to look suspicious (drug patrol dogs are always out at SeaTac), lift my nearly-empty suitcase easily from the baggage carousel (arriving empty in order to be filled with the shopping delights of the Pacific Northwest!) and head to the train, which takes me to the main terminal.

I can see it in my head now, even as I write this back in London. I rehearse every step, every moment, of my arrival to Seattle before I even get to Heathrow airport. On the plane, I pretend I'm hurtling through a wormhole that allows me to transcend time, space, distance.

I turn on my phone and wait for it to find a US carrier. I call my Dad and tell him I'm waiting under "Skybridge 3. No, Skybridge 2. I'm standing under the American Airlines sign. It's busy." I wave at the wrong Subaru a few times. Finally, he appears, grinning, and hops out of the car, helping me with my suitcase. "Hi Dad!" I say, excited and brimming over with happiness at seeing him in real life rather than over a FaceTime connection. It's the same every time: he says I stink of garlic and asks, "What did they feed you on the plane?", offers me gum, asks me how John is, asks me how Alison is, tells me about work, and I babble. We're 15 minutes away from home when he clutches at his pockets and says, "I forgot to call mom and tell her I picked you up! She is going to have a fit! She's preparing your favorite congee." I call her and tell her I'm 10 minutes away. She always says, "That was quick! There's congee waiting for you at home."

Our basic needs as humans are food, warmth, and shelter. And whenever I'm "home" for an extended period of time, I feel as though I'm enveloped in a warm, crushing, constant hug from my parents, 24/7. I snuggle deep into the covers of my childhood bed and I get tears in my eyes and I think, 'I'm too old to be treated this way.' Of course, I love it. But I feel infantile. I act that way too. I make unreasonable demands. I binge watch TV because I can and there's no one to stop me or make me feel guilty from indulging too much. I eat everything and anything I can get my hands on that's off limits or unavailable to me in London: soft, glazed donuts by the dozen, Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, beef jerky from Costco, every last morsel of my parents' cooking. Instead of learning how to recreate their recipes, I nap and miss it all, waking only to consume and repeat. This makes me sad and angry with myself, but I do it anyway.

Then there are the role reversals, which are more disorienting than anything else: my (little!) brother correcting my grammar at the dinner table; my mother in the backseat of the car, engrossed in Candy Crush Saga on her iPad for the duration of the ride; me arguing with my mother that the dress she bought for me is far too short for my liking; and finally, me pleading with my father to bite the XXL grapes he was eating in half first because I was scared he'd choke on them, to which he responded by gleefully popping two, no three, at a time into his mouth. Since when did I turn into the parent?

When I return to London (which is also not my home) two weeks later, I feel very - most overwhelmingly - alone. With no one to constantly monitor and ask about my basic needs every half an hour, I feel abandoned and left to fend for myself. My body, grown accustomed to being driven everywhere and hardly moving a muscle, feels bewildered in having to walk the short but frequent distances to the bus stop, to work, to the grocery store. I feel sorry for myself when my umbrella turns inside out and the rain whips around my ankles as I wait for four full buses to pass before I can get on one that will actually fit me to take me to work. I feel sorry for myself when I wake in the middle of the night, hungry from being jet lagged, and there are no delicious cocktail buns from Hong Kong that have been frozen and then defrosted for my arrival that I can simply warm in the microwave. I burst into tears when I go to the small Tesco Express by my flat after work to find some dinner and am faced with the same, limited options I have every day: chicken, chicken, or chicken. I long for the oversized grocery stores of the US, which sell genetically engineered fruit accompanied by tubs of caramel dip and clever fruit peeling gadgets. John says I feel sorry for myself too often. I can't help it, after two weeks of being treated like a child at home.

At work, I sneak into the bathroom to take photos in the mirror of the outfits I bought with my mom using the birthday and Christmas money my parents gave me and email them to her when I'm back at my desk. Then I return to lock myself in a stall and cry for about five minutes or so.

My friends at work are sweet and understanding. Seeing my red-rimmed eyes, they offer suggestions to cheer me up and come up to visit me at my desk one-by-one. "Let's have lunch!" "Let's get drinks after work!" "Why don't we see a movie together this week?" I sniff, reach for a tissue, and nod, mumbling my thanks. "I'll be fine in two weeks, I promise," I say, smiling wanly.

And then six months later or so: lather, rinse, and repeat. It's getting better though - I'm starting to feel less alone. Rather, I feel love from both sides of the ocean. And I realized that this love has always existed. I have just opened and closed the valves of my heart every time my plane touched down in a different airport. This time, I am leaving it open to receive - to truly receive - the love that I know and feel to be deep within me.

I am getting closer to "home", I think.


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